Beyond Green Promises: Unveiling the Hidden Costs of Electrifying Mobility towards a Sustainable Future
by Garrett Hartley
While many see electric vehicles as the catalyst to a carbon-free future, many do not see the cost of human labor. The automotive industry has undergone a seismic change in recent years with the increasing popularity and adoption of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles have gained this growing popularity by being a promising solution for environmental sustainability and fixing climate change. This transition to electric mobility presents the possibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving the increase in air pollution, and enhancing everyday life. To better understand these possibilities, an examination of background information of this is needed. Research shows that electric vehicles can be valuable for the environment; however, an excessive number of issues prohibit them from being that. Those issues include energy sources used to produce electricity to charge these electric vehicles are not always clean, studies that suggest we need a cleaner means of production of charging energy to produce emission-free vehicles, and finally, evidence of charging electric vehicles being the main problem of a complete electrification shift in the transportation sector.
Electric vehicles have emerged as a viable alternative to gas-powered cars and a fundamental necessity for decarbonization. Research shows that using electric vehicles solves the need for reducing C02 emissions in the transportation sector of climate change. Within the piece, “Driving on Electric Avenue--Innovation Pushes Energy Transformation,” published by POWER Magazine, Darrell Proctor, senior associate editor for POWER Magazine, stated, “Those who spoke with POWER repeatedly noted the fight against climate change as a reason to support electrification, saying reducing the use of fossil fuels is critical to decarbonizing the economy and meeting climate goals” (Proctor 37). This quote displays a crucial topic in the conversation surrounding the shift to electrification and electric vehicles. It links the shift to electrification in addressing the challenges of climate change and meeting climate goals. In his article, “Electric Vehicles: Approaching the Tipping Point,” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Daniel Sperling, the Blue Planet Prize professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy and founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, quotes “…another compelling argument for EVs is that petroleum-powered motor vehicles are a major contributor to climate change, emitting about 20 percent of all greenhouse gases worldwide” (qt. in Sperling 12). Sperling establishes the need for electric vehicles in the push for electrification and acknowledges the critical environmental concern of petroleum transportation, as he links it to climate change. This view supports the notion that the support of electric vehicles by the government is only growing along with the adoption of these vehicles in transportation. Sperling emphasizes growing government aspirations are being converted to more aggressive regulations and incentives. He argues that this conversion signifies that using electric vehicles is the best way to reduce pollution and global warming (12). Sperling emphasizing the point of the government’s shift in policy formation better propels the notion that electric vehicles are growing and valuable assets to the environment. Studies show that the market share of electric vehicles is higher in locations with massive amounts of incentives, a plethora of charging stations, and where government leaders support the future of electric vehicles. In the publication, “As electric vehicles explode in popularity, charging infrastructure needs to expand rapidly in coming years,” published by Penton Media, in American City & County Exclusive Insight, Andrew Castillo, Editor for Penton Media, uses the example of how city leaders in Washington, D.C. are proposing legislation that requires developers to include charging ports in renovations or new constructions to support his argument of how state and local governments are addressing the need for more charging stations (Castillo 1). Castillo addressing the legislation to expand the district’s charging stations to support the increasing demand links the position that where government leaders support the future of electric vehicles, the popularity and demand for them are significantly greater.
Clean energy is hard to find, and energy sources used to produce electricity to charge electric vehicles are not always clean. Research suggests that energy sources used to produce electricity to charge electric vehicles are vastly different worldwide. In the case study, “The Influence of Power Sources for Charging the Batteries of Electric Cars on CO2 Emissions during Daily Driving: A Case Study from Poland,” published by MDPI Publishing, Łukasz Sobol, Professor at Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, and Arkadiusz Dyjakon, Professor at Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, it states “Compared to traditional ICE cars, which are powered solely by diesel or unleaded gasoline, the electricity for EV charging can be generated from various energy sources—conventional (e.g., lignite, coal, natural gas) and renewable (e.g., biomass, biogas, solar energy, wind energy, hydro energy)” (Sobol and Dyjakon 3). The research done by Sobol and Dyjank, listing the different ways of the energy produced to charge electric vehicles, endorses the notion that the electricity produced can come from various ways that are different around the world. Additionally, an illustration was presented that displayed the percentage of renewable energy sources used in various countries around Europe. This illustration displayed the research that in countries such as Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, and Austria, more than 70% of renewable energy sources are used, whereas Poland, Cyprus, Mata, Bulgaria, Belgium, Netherlands, Czechia, Hungry, France, and Estonia use less than 20% of renewables (Sobol and Dyjakon 3). This research shows the resources each country uses to produce electricity are vastly different. It suggests that if the country’s infrastructure relies heavily on non-renewable resources, the energy produced will not be as clean as that of a country that relies on renewable energy sources. Sobol and Dyjankon use their home country of Poland as an example of a country in the European Union that is still primarily based on solid fossil fuels. The Solid fossil fuels of hard coal and lignite produce over 80% of Poland’s electricity (5). Sobol and Dyjankon, addressing this issue, suggest that not all countries can produce 100% clean, renewable energy. This study shows that producing renewable energy for charging electric vehicles relies on the country’s infrastructure to produce energy.
In order to produce 100% emission-free vehicles, a cleaner production of charging energy is needed. In the article “Electric vehicles: Approaching the tipping point,” Sperling displays the issue electric vehicles face if energy is not renewable. He suggests that for there to be 100% emissions-free vehicles, there must be renewable energy; Sperling argues that it is counterproductive if an electric vehicle is charged by a dirty coal power plant (12). Sperling’s view suggests that it is contrary to the purpose of emission-free if it is charged by a non-renewable energy source that produces copious amounts of emissions. Research shows that batteries in electric vehicle manufacturing do not come from the most suitable and ethical circumstances. In his article, “Electric Cars – They May in Time Increase Car Use without Effective Road Pricing Reform and Risk Lifecycle Carbon Emission Increases,” David Hensher, Professor in the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at The University of Sydney Business School, states:
A big concern with battery technology is that key chemical components are sourced from
extractive industries which in the main are lithium and cobalt, rare earth materials often mined
in countries in Central Africa in particular where low-cost child labourers working very long
hours provide the manpower to extract these minerals from the ground” (Hensher 266).
The ethical situation Hensher addresses suggests that if electric vehicles grow, the work from these children is only going to grow. Is a reduction in climate change worth the cost of child labor? This ethical challenge presented between mitigating climate change and engaging in child labor is a complex situation that requires an examination of short-term and long-term consequences. While mitigating climate change is crucial, any approach must acknowledge that exploiting child labor cannot be justified. Studies show that when electricity is switched from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the climate benefits of electric vehicles are massive. In the text, “Electric vehicles: Approaching the tipping point,” Sperling supports the notion that electric vehicles provide the greatest air quality and climate benefits when electricity is generated from renewable energy. Sperling points out that when electricity generation is switched from fossil to renewable energy, it shows an almost 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (12). This research displays the notion that for society to get the most benefits from electric vehicles, there must be renewable energy, or the entire mission is counterproductive.
Evidence suggests that charging electric vehicles is the main problem of a complete electrification shift in transpiration. Charging infrastructure is behind and needs to rapidly expand to keep pace with the rapid adoption of electric vehicles. As depicted in the article, “As Electric Vehicles Explode in Popularity, Charging Infrastructure Needs to Expand Rapidly in Coming Years,” Castillo displays the results from a study by S&P Global in showing that the 140,000 charging stations currently across the United States support about 1.9 million vehicles on the road. This report suggests that the number will need to quadruple to about 770,000 by 2025 to sustain the projected 7.8 million electric vehicles in three years (Castillo 1). This study furthers the notion that for electric vehicles to be successful, the charging stations must be rapidly expanded. Castillo’s research also displays that if this rapid expansion is not done, electric vehicles will not be successful in being a suitable and sustainable option for the future of transportation. Research suggests that charging infrastructure not meeting the needs of consumers is causing doubts about electric vehicles’ reliability. Within the same piece, “As Electric Vehicles Explode in Popularity, Charging Infrastructure Needs to Expand Rapidly in Coming Years,” Castillo cites the study done by J.D. Power, which found that one in every five people who go to a public charging station, could not charge their vehicle during a stop to charge their vehicle because of the station having either a malfunction or being out of service (Castillo 1). This research indicates the doubts that could be caused by the reason of reliability for the switch to electrification in the transportation sector.
The popularity and adoption of electric vehicles mark a significant shift in the transportation sector because of the challenge to have a carbon-free future. However, it is essential to recognize the cost. While research suggests that electric vehicles are a valuable asset in solving environmental challenges and climate change problems, it additionally implies that numerous situational factors must be in place for this to be true. Those factors are an evaluation of the lifecycle of these cars, the energy produced to charge, and the charging networks and infrastructure. Studies suggest that if these factors are not in place, then the mission to a carbon-free future is irrelevant in a very relevant issue.
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